Bonfire at Gretchen’s
I hadn’t planned on driving all the way out to Ambush Road for Gretchen’s bonfire until she called me and told me in her joking-but-not-really tone that she was going to hit me so hard my grandkids would be born spitting out teeth unless my cracker ass showed up. Gretchen had lived way out past the county line when she was growing up, and she has three older brothers, so I knew that no matter how tired I was, I had better go on out for it. It’s not so much that I’m scared of her brothers; more like I’m scared they taught her how to hit and where. Gretchen’s low, mean giggle made me decide that I wasn’t going to take any chances and that I’d just go to the damn thing already. And after all, Friday’s payday, so I’d have money enough for beer, and Gretchen is usually pretty good about having the grill going when she has a bonfire, if it’s payday for her too, and everyone who comes around ends up bringing whatever they have to share, even if it’s not much. Which for most of us, it’s not. Maybe a few beers, a half-empty bottle of whiskey or vodka, whatever’s left from last Friday night, or whatever bud we have left until we get paid again, or a pan of brownies from a box mix, baked with the last eggs in the fridge. You know, whatever we’ve got to spare.
Everyone goes out to Gretchen’s when there’s a bonfire. There’ve been nights when I’ve camped out there in my canvas chair, tending the fire, because I’m good at that, even when I’m drunk. There’s been more than a few nights where I’ve sat in Gretchen Revel’s backyard, with dewy mist clinging to the hairs on my arm, and I’ve watched the sun come up over scrub pines as the last embers of the fire sort of smoke and sizzle into the daylight. I’d been avoiding her bonfires all through the winter and spring, though, and it hadn’t gone unnoticed—which is I guess why she threatened to knock my teeth in. Growing up out towards the county line made her one of those proud women, the kind that’d rather threaten to punch you than to say, Stop treating me different just because my man up and left. For Gretchen, the thought that it might be pity keeping me away was like biting into a peach and looking down into the hollowed-out valley of its pale orange meat and seeing only half of a worm—and realizing you’ve already swallowed the rotten thing down. A person feeling sorry for her is that half-eaten worm that ruins the whole fruit, not just the wormy bit, and makes her sick at the stomach. I’m no worm. I decided that I’d stayed away long enough. Fine Gretchen, I said, you win.
So come Friday morning, I was feeling good, because it was payday. When I turned on the Weather Channel while eating my cornflakes, the forecast said, Clear with a high of 80, which put me in real good spirits, because when you work county maintenance like I do, rainy days, or really hot summer days are the worst. Best I can describe what I do is I’m a handyman for the county. I get to drive around in my truck and write off my mileage, have a big box of tools in the back, spend my days mostly outdoors fixing things, mowing the grass in front of county buildings and cleaning up parks. I get to be in the sun and smoke while I work. I don’t really have to answer too much to my supervisor, and I get to work alone, which is great. If I had to spend the day listening to someone yapping away like they do in an office, I might just snap their neck like a chicken before Sunday dinner. So after I clocked in and got Friday’s task sheet, I was even happier, because I got to spend the day in the park trimming back blackberry brambles that had gotten too big. With it being a high of 80, the middle of June, and me trimming back blackberry brambles, I knew I’d have something good to bring Gretchen. Got a couple empty buckets in the truck, and during June’s blackberry season out in Wakulla, the fruits are soft, shiny black, and sweet as your first kiss. Since I’d be spending all day trimming back the thorny bushes, I knew I’d be picking a bucket or two of the berries to bring over to Gretchen’s bonfire later that night. And I wouldn’t get heatstroke wearing my thermal shirt, because in August, when it tops out over 100 most days, it’s almost a toss up whether it’s better to roast in your long sleeves or get torn up by blackberry canes. So all in all, before I’d even had my second cup of coffee, Friday promised me she’d be treating me sweet.
Now, there’s a reason I stayed away from Gretchen’s bonfires during the best times of year to have them. Not pity, not even close to it. When I got out to the park, I dropped the back of my truck and started sharpening my machete with the flat bastard file. Cutting blackberry canes, I’ll come back to the truck to put the edge back on it probably two or three more times. I light a Pall Mall and let it dangle from the corner of my mouth so the smoke doesn’t get up in my eyes, and savor the rasp of the file turning the soft metal sharp. It’s guilt, plain and simple, that’s kept me away. I’m afraid she’ll see it, and know it, and knock my teeth in just like she’s been promising to since I first met her in middle school. I knew her man Bobby was no good. He used to work at the county with me, and I heard him talk. And even though I’d known Gretchen since she was a scrawny little chickenlegged girl who didn’t like to brush her hair, I didn’t say boo to her about it. Not my place, I reckoned, who am I to butt into their business? But there were some bonfires where I’d get over to Ambush Road before he did, and she’d plant her fists on her hips the exact same way she did when she was a surly little thirteen year old and say, Lookit you, cutting outta work early like that while Bobby covers for your stupid ass, I oughta knock your teeth in, Trey Deaton! And I lied to her, hoping she didn’t look me too hard in the eye, sorta kicked at the gravel of her driveway and said, Yeah, I cut out before Bobby tonight, you prolly should knock in my teeth for keeping your man away from you, when I knew full well and good that it was Bobby who cut out early and stuck all the rest of us to finish the work, and even then he still hadn’t dragged his sorry ass back home. When he finally pulled up he’d head straight to the shower, not even give her a kiss, hollering, Baby, I stink, you don’t wanna come near me till I’ve hosed off! All the time knowing there wasn’t anything I could do about it, even though I was wise to him. He knew her temper and that country girl loyalty. We both did, and he knew that even if I was dumb enough to flap my jaw—which I wasn’t—there wasn’t anything I’d have said that she would have believed, and all that temper would barrel down my direction. No, thank you. So I kept to my own business and felt nothing but bad when Bobby finally up and left her in November, right before all the holidays. Because even if she wouldn’t have listened, I could have said something, and I didn’t, and I hate to think that the reason was because I was afraid.
Once I’ve got a sharp edge on the machete, I grab the buckets out of the back and head towards the bushes. I take my time so I don’t get tore up by the canes as much, just picking all the fattest, ripest berries off the boughs and then hacking through the soft wood to cut them back to a manageable size. When the thorns get me, the scratches sting and burn a little bit, not bad, sometimes they bite through even the flannel shirt, and I see little dots of blood scattered under the cloth, and somehow it sort of feels right to get scratched up picking berries for Gretchen while I lop back the bushes that have gotten too big to manage anymore. It wasn’t that I was really that afraid of her temper, I’m not that kind of coward. What I was scared of is that she would think I tattled on Bobby because I wanted her for myself. And I was afraid that when she confronted Bobby, with her fists like little scrunched up balls planted on the hips that weren’t knobby anymore like they were when she was thirteen, that he’d say the same thing and weasel his way out of it. Then they’d tell me not to come round anymore, and I’d have to listen to him running his mouth at work, knowing he was getting away with it. I’d have had to stand by and watch it all happen anyway, knowing that all my talk just made it worse, not better, because then she’d be even more humiliated when he finally left. And I knew he was going to leave. And I also knew that if she said, Bobby says you’re lying because you want to bust us up, so you can move in on me yourself, I knew that it’d be partly true. And she’d see the part that was true and confuse it with the part that wasn’t. By the time I finished out my Friday, I was covered in sweat from getting my back into the work, and feeling good about going out to Gretchen’s again. Hardest thing in the world was staying away when it all went pear-shaped. I knew she’d know if I went out when she was still raw. So I didn’t.
I’d planned to shower before I went over, because I was wearing a flannel most of the day, and even with a low temperature for June, I was a sweaty mess. I still had dried blood from the canes that managed to bite me, and all kinds of dirt and blackberry juice in the cracks of my hands and under my nails. On my way home, just getting on toward sunset, the road away from town was like a soft ribbon back to the woods. One last stretch of blacktop from the city before the county roads started going back to dirt. Just off the side of the highway near the breakdown lane, I saw something shining. Since people throw all sorts of stuff out of their trucks on Woodville Highway, I stopped to see what it was. Sometimes I find something useful, when I’ve got the presence of mind to stop and look. Coming to a stop, I could see it was a DVD case. I checked to make sure I’d thrown on my hazards. The road was pretty well empty, so I got out and went over to check it out. When I got closer, I heard the clipped cries of an animal that’d been hit. Out here, you hear it more than you want to, you know, because cars and animals have a way of meeting in the road and the animals never come out the winner from that mess. Unless it’s a deer. They get revenge by messing up the car. But even then, the deer’s dead, too. A little further off the road, I saw him, a young piglet, maybe wild, or maybe just wandered off someone’s property. Looked as though his back broke when he got hit. Not enough to kill him quick, but enough to throw him off the road. No way he’d make it. All that’s left for him is the time until his body gives up, and a whole lot of hurt till then. It’s not right to let them suffer like that, there on the side of the road. When they finally do give up, not only have they had a world of hurt they didn’t deserve, but their bodies attract more just like them, and it just keeps going on, you know, sad. I thought on it for a hair of a second before I went back to my toolbox. I keep a machete in the back, same one I used for the blackberries just a few hours before, and I always carry a folding drop point blade on my belt, out of habit. You never know what you’re gonna need, or when you might need it. I cut his throat quick, there on the side of the road, with the dusk coming on, as a car from the city sped by. I tipped the brim of my cap as they passed by, not really apologetic for what I was on the side of the road doing, because it was necessary. But all the same, I knew what they were thinking as they raced by me, cutting a pig’s throat by the side of Woodville Highway. Felt a little bad about it, because they weren’t going to slow down, so I’d never be able to explain how it’s different than they thought. All the same though, I shouldn’t have to, because unless you’ve seen an animal suffer and bleed out on the side of the road, you can’t understand the mercy I did it. I felt the rumble of an idea, a belch of the redneck I must’ve surely looked like to the passing cars. Lucky for me, my folding blade is sharp and makes pretty easy work of a quick field dressing. When I got done, I took off the pig’s head and left it and the innards close to the edge of the woods, off the road, to keep buzzards and the other critters safe. Coming back, I remembered to go check out the DVD that’d made me pull over to begin with. It was a porno. Figures. I grabbed a dropcloth from the truck bed and wrapped up the carcass of the pig, put it in the bed of my truck with the porno and headed straight over to Gretchen’s. Her blackberries were on the floorboards of the shotgun seat up front so they wouldn’t spill. No need to shower now, I thought; the universe has spoken. I stopped at home first to grab a clean shirt, a cleaver and a boning knife, and the bottle of Wild Turkey that was about three-quarters full.
I got to Gretchen’s still in my work clothes, smelling like an overheated horse and colored with grass stains, dirt, speckles of blackberry juice, and smears of pig blood. I looked a mess, and I knew Gretchen wasn’t going to be happy about it unless I made sure she knew I had a good reason to come straight over. I found her in the kitchen and I was right, she started to yap at me for not even having the decency to get in a shower before I came over, until she saw the pails of blackberries and asked if they were for her. I said they were and she gave me a kiss on my unshaved cheek and didn’t even make a peep about how scratchy I felt. I told her to come outside, that wasn’t all I had. I said, You, Gretchen Revel, you must have tempted fate by making me come out to your bonfire tonight, and she said, Shut up, Trey, you cracker, you knew you wanted to come on out, you just needed a kick in the ass. Outside, I dropped the tailgate and presented her with the copy of Horny Underage Co-Eds 3 and the mostly-full bottle of Wild Turkey. She laughed at the porno roadkill and said, Someone’s sure to want that before the night’s over, take it over to the fire and tell the story again later on. Me and Gretchen took a shot together right there on the tailgate, straight out of the bottle, with the wrapped up body of the piglet between us. We chased the slow burn of whiskey with a swig off her warm bottle of Coke. We went back to the kitchen and I set to butchering the pig for her to season before she gave it to her brothers to put on the grill. She said, My daddy woulda been proud of you, for not letting the pig suffer and for not letting it go to waste, neither.
After I changed into my clean shirt, I set up the fire so that it’d burn steady through the night. There’s an art and an architecture to building a fire, if you’re patient enough to pay attention and learn it. If you live outside of town, and you have fires pretty regular, you learn it early on, but again, you have to be patient and pay attention. Some have the knack for it, and others just throw together whatever wood’s handy and hope for the best. I myself like to sort the wood. I pull out the pieces of fat lighter and keep them separate, keep the drier pieces in another spot and sort the wood by its thickness and length. I build my fires from the bottom up, so they burn even and strong and never have the chance to flame up too hot and then burn out, because then you have to start all over again. Once the fire got going, I made sure I had my sorted piles of wood at the ready to feed it, and this metal pole I keep in the back of my truck, that I’m particular about using for shifting the fire so it burns even. I settled down into my chair with a can of beer from the kiddie pool full of ice that Gretchen’s brothers dragged into the middle of the back yard. As the night rolled over the tops of Wakulla’s woods, I breathed in the smell of summer and grilling pork, feeling the familiar pinch of mosquitoes on my arms. Though I hadn’t planned on going out to Gretchen’s, I supposed I ended up being exactly where I needed to be, and I was glad for it, because the night had shaped up to be sweet and dark as the pails of blackberries I brought her. I don’t exactly know what the universe was trying to tell me with the pig and the porno, though. I don’t know what it says about the things that get chucked out the window when you’re driving through Woodville, who tosses out the dirty movies, or why. Might’ve just been an accident, like the pig. When you’re driving as fast as you can through the woodsy part of town that eventually feeds down to the coast, where tourists spend money to pretend they’re living rustic like they think we do, I guess it’s easy to smack a young pig and never stop to make sure that you actually killed the damn thing. Though that’s probably just me assuming it wasn’t a truck like mine that hit the thing—just out this way, most drivers at least stop to drag it off the road, you know, make sure, because these are our yards and neighbors.
So I sat there as the sap from the pinewood sizzled and glittered in the fire, everyone around me laughing and talking, the smell of charcoal and meat on the grill and the wet cold of a Coors tall boy kissing the palm of my hand. Gretchen pulled up a chair next to me and plunked a paper plate full of pork and potato salad into my lap. I like Gretchen because she doesn’t say much. When she does though, you listen, because she’s smart and she’s got a sharp tongue when she wants to. Been that way as long as I can remember, nothing in the world gonna change that, and thank God for it, too. She pulled up next to me with her plate and didn’t say anything, just sat there as people came in and out of the backyard, saying hello and offering cookies or a smoke off their joint, giving hugs and saying Bye, y’all, thanks for the fire. The night got blacker, then bluer, then brighter again as the stars twinkled bright against the unlit Wakulla sky and then faded as the sun came back up on Saturday morning. By then, her brothers had crashed out inside her trailer and it was just me and Gretchen, out in the yard, being quiet. The mosquitoes had finally gotten tired of sucking our blood and were headed off to bed themselves. She reached over and hooked her pinky through mine and giggled a little bit, saying, Ya know Rocky took off with the porno, right? And I said, Prolly his to begin with, I bet Misty pitched it out the window when she found it under the seat. Gretchen let out one loud laugh, like a goose, just loud and short, HAH! and she shook her head, because it wasn’t like it couldn’t have happened just like that. Horny Underage Co-Eds 3, she chuckled. Her pinky still hooked through mine, I shook her hand a little and said, Might be different than 1 and 2, you never know, and she goose-laughed again. We sat there quiet for a few more minutes and watched the sun struggle up over the tops of the trees. I know why you stayed away, Trey Deaton, she said, squeezing her pinky around mine a little harder. You knew, didn’tcha? ‘Bout Bobby? So I took a long drag off my smoke and said, Yeah, I knew, and felt ashamed all over again. She gave my pinky another soft tug and said, Ya know, my daddy woulda been proud of you for that, too, letting me make my own mistake and learn from it. She reached over and plucked the smoke from my other hand, took a long drag off it and then passed it back to the fingers she’d found it in. I woulda just been mad at you if you’d told me, ya know, she said, soft as the summer breeze off Shell Point. Yeah, I know, I said, salty as the shoreline. Didn’t have to say I wished I had anyway. She knew. Don’t matter now, she said, and went back to watching the trees and the brightening sky. The sun finally got the best of the trees and peeked over the tip-tops of their outline, and I just sat there, happy that my pinky was linked with Gretchen Revel’s. Ya hungry? she asked, standing up. I got some eggs and grits. You g’head and douse the fire, I’ll put on the coffee. I watched her walk up the steps and swing the screen door open, appreciating the swing of her hips as she walked, sweet and ripe like the blackberries she was going to stir into the grits. I walked over to the melted ice in the kiddie pool and scooped two empty red Dixie cups worth to hit the fire with. It sputtered and spat, hissing a stream of salty smelling smoke up against my shirt that I wouldn’t notice until it was time to do laundry. The smell of coffee dripping into the pot drifted over the humidity of salt-kissed morning air, so I stretched out my arms and thanked God for the things that other people leave behind.